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Oil Prospecting Seen as Latest Risk to Armenian Lake

Right now, only exploratory work is planned, but environmentalists fear for the worst if anything is found.
By Arpi Harutyunyan
  •  Lake Sevan is Armenia's main reserve of fresh water. (Photo: Gayane Mirzoyan)
    Lake Sevan is Armenia's main reserve of fresh water. (Photo: Gayane Mirzoyan)

Environmentalists in Armenia are alarmed by the government’s decision to allow oil prospecting in an area that includes Lake Sevan,the region’s largest freshwater resource.

The ministry for energy and natural resources has granted exploration company Blackstairs Energy Armenia permission to begin an11 million US dollar search for oil and gas deposits in 2015-16.

Blackstairs Energy Armenia, a locally-registered firm,was set up in 2008 as a joint venture between Canadian company Vangold, Ireland’s Blackstairs Energy and the Armenian government.

According to Vangold, the company has obtained “very encouraging” data that provide “compelling evidence for the existence of significant accumulations of hydrocarbons within the licence area”. That area, known as the Central Depression, is located in central and southern Armenia and includes part of Lake Sevan.

Near the lakeside, prospecting work is planned at the villages of Hayravank, Tsaghkashen and Noradus.

The lake is protected by a special law passed in 2001 which forbids any activity liable to damage its ecosystem. Environmentalists have frequently raised the alarm about projects that seem to contravene at least the spirit of the law, from fish farming to gold mining and over-use of Sevan’s waters.

“As long as it’s just exploration, we can’t say the law is being broken,” Silva Adamyan, coordinator of the Public Environmental Alliance, told IWPR. “But if oil reserves are found, the next step has to be production. Drilling operations on Lake Sevan’s territory is prohibited by law, as it would have devastating consequences for the lake.”

Adamyan insisted that Armenia’s green activists would be happy if oil reserves were discovered, as long as it was not at the expense of Lake Sevan.

Unlike its oil-rich neighbour Azerbaijan, Armenia has few known natural fuel sources and has to import natural gas from Russia and to a lesser extent Iran.

While the neighbouring Azerbaijan has rich deposits of oil, environmentalists doubt that Armenia possesses untapped reserves.

Ruben Movsisyan, the director of Yerevan State University’s Centre for Sustainable Development, is pretty sure that the prospectors will not find anything commercially significant.

“In the Soviet era, wells were drilled atArmavir and a little gas was found. And a very small oil deposit was found in the village of Voghjaberd on the road to Garni. Foreign organisations then drilled a well in Garni to a depth of about 3,200 metres, but nothing was found,” he told IWPR.

However, Blackstairs Energy Armenia says data collected in the Soviet period is unreliable.

“The research conducted from 1947 to 1990 was… done using rudimentary geological and geophysical technology,” the company said in a statement.

The company insists that its activities are designed to minimise any environmental impact.

Kristine Vardanyan, ofBlackstairsEnergy Armenia, said that since only exploratory work was to be conducted at this stage, using safe methods, there was no cause for concern.

Tehmina Arzumanyan, spokesperson for the  Ministry of Nature Protection ,stressed that permission had been granted only tolocate potential oilfields, not to drill in them.

“If, as a result of exploration, it turns out that there is gas or oil underground in Armenia, the company must seek an additional expert study or apply for a license to drill wells in the area,” Arzumanyan told IWPR.

But Karine Danielyan, chair of the Association for Sustainable Human Development, argued that the application which Blackstairs Energy Armenia submitted to carry out prospecting was incomplete.

“This document does not contain any assessment of the impact on the environment; it is merely descriptive.Instead of proposing safety solutions, it only expresses good intentions,” Danielyan said.

Movsisyan pointed out that as a country with no oil industry, Armenia had never developed legislation to govern the pollution and other risks that extraction would entail.

Environmentalists argue that decisionsof such momentous importance need to be discussed more broadly. Liana Asoyan, coordinator of the Aarhus Centre in Gavar, says public hearings have been held in all the regions where exploration is planned, but civil society organisations were not invited.

“We were not informed that these hearings were going on,” she told IWPR. “So the Aarhus Centre in Yerevan and Gavar organised a meetingitself, and invited company representatives and environmentalists.We made our position clear – that Lake Sevanshould be left alone,and that they should not even plan any drilling work there.”

Asoyan says it is unclear what will happen if oil is found.

“We’ve been assured that there won’t be any drilling in Lake Sevan. But if they do find oil, what would the company be interested in other than extracting the reserves?” she said.

Arpi Harutyunyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.

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